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Intestinal Fistula Surgery Treatment & Management

  • Author: Neelu Pal, MD; Chief Editor: John Geibel, MD, DSc, MSc, MA  more...
Updated: Sep 18, 2015

Approach Considerations

Indications for surgery for intestinal fistula depend on anatomic, physiologic, and etiologic classification. Once the fistula is appropriately classified, it is possible to predict the likelihood of fistula closure with nonsurgical treatment.

Intestinal fistulas are first treated medically. Many enterocutaneous fistulas close spontaneously if infection is controlled, nutrition is adequate, and distal obstruction is not present. Definitive operative correction remains the final step in the treatment of nonhealing small intestinal fistulas. Such procedures should be undertaken only after the patient has been stabilized and is in positive nitrogen balance, with normal protein indices. Usually, a minimum of 3-6 weeks is required. During this time, if the fistula appears unlikely to respond to conservative treatment, radiologic evaluation and surgical planning can be undertaken.

Indications for surgery for intestinal fistulas can be classified into those related to early surgical intervention and those related to delayed intervention. Deciding between early and delayed surgical intervention is complicated and depends on multiple prognostic factors.

Early surgery is infrequently required, but may be necessary, in the following circumstances:

  • Sepsis or abscess formation not amenable to percutaneous drainage
  • Complete distal intestinal obstruction
  • Uncontrolled bleeding from fistula
  • Removal of mesh or other foreign bodies
  • Inability to control the fistula without surgical drainage
  • Aortoenteric fistulas (definitively managed by means of emergency surgery as soon as the diagnosis is made)

Delayed surgery is most commonly indicated in patients whose fistulas have not healed after several (typically 4-8) weeks of comprehensive conservative treatment. Specific indications include the following:

  • Continued high output from fistula after patient has been given nothing by mouth and started on parenteral nutrition
  • Continued signs of infection after institution of adequate antibiotic therapy and drainage of associated abscesses
  • Uncontrolled bleeding

In 1999, Campos et al used a combination of prognostic factors to develop a multivariate model that determined the probability of spontaneous closure and mortality associated with intestinal fistulas.[5] Campos et al demonstrated, in their group of patients, that spontaneous closure was most likely to occur in low-output postoperative fistulas, with no associated complications. The overall mortality was highest in patients with high-output fistulas and in those with associated infectious complication.

Despite this model, as well as previously defined prognostic factors, estimating the probability of spontaneous closure and mortality associated with a fistula remains difficult. Further applications of prognostic models to larger and diverse patient populations are necessary to validate these types of predictive models.

The use of minimally invasive techniques in the treatment of intestinal fistulas has been described. Laparoscopic resection of internal fistulas as well as enterocutaneous fistulas has been reported in the literature. Fibrin glue applications, as well as porcine and bovine tissue plugs, have been used to successfully close enterocutaneous fistulas. Further studies are required to define patient selection and outcomes in the use of these techniques to treat intestinal fistulas.


Medical Therapy

Initial treatment of intestinal fistulas is medical, including resuscitation, control of sepsis, local control of fistula output, nutritional support, pharmacologic management, and radiologic investigations. The final therapeutic step, if necessary, is definitive surgery to restore gastrointestinal (GI) tract continuity.[6] (See the image below.)

Management algorithm for intestinal fistulas. Management algorithm for intestinal fistulas.

Elements of nonsurgical treatment


Most patients with GI fistulas experience significant fluid and electrolyte imbalances. Carefully monitored replacement of the losses is essential and is often paired with central venous monitoring to accurately estimate fluid deficits. Resuscitation aims to restore intravascular fluid volume and to ensure a urine output of 30 mL/hr or hgiher. The circulation volume deficits result from extracellular fluid losses, and replacement is best achieved with isotonic crystalloid solutions, such as normal saline or lactated Ringer solution.

Simultaneous electrolyte repletion is necessary. Isolated measures of serum levels may not reflect the degree of intracellular electrolyte depletion; thus, continued monitoring for ongoing losses is necessary. Patients with high output and proximal fistulas develop significant metabolic acidosis, which may require intravenous sodium bicarbonate administration.

Control of sepsis

Uncontrolled sepsis is a major cause of mortality in patients with small intestinal fistulas. Tachycardia, persistent fever, and leukocytosis indicate the presence of infection associated with the fistula. Patients are treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics and local drainage of abscesses (if present). Most deep or intraperitoneal collections are amenable to drainage guided by computed tomography (CT) or ultrasonography. Of postoperative intra-abdominal abscesses, 15% are reported to be associated with fistulas. Percutaneous drainage allows temporary control of the fistula and may achieve long-term fistula healing in as many as 70% of patients whose abscesses are adequately drained.

Surgical drainage may be required if the abscess is not safely accessible. At the time of surgery, definitive repair of the fistula should not be attempted, because the presence of adjacent infection precludes healing. The abscess should be drained, and if necessary, the fistula should be completely exteriorized to the skin level to prevent further intraperitoneal fluid collection.

Local control of fistula

An attempt should be made to decrease fistula output by placing of enteric drainage tubes proximal to the fistula (an important treatment step). Nasogastric or nasojejunal tubes are usually placed, and the patient is given nothing by mouth while total parenteral nutrition (TPN) is initiated. The goal of controlling enterocutaneous fistula output is to prevent the intraperitoneal accumulation of intestinal contents and to protect the skin from the effects of the intestinal contents.

Control of enterocutaneous fistula drainage is individualized according to the patient and the fistula output. Drainage with a simple catheter placed into the fistula tract invariably fails as a result of occlusion and inability to capture all of the output. In some instances, low constant suction applied via a soft sump catheter into the fistula tract can contain fistula drainage. Adjacent or escaping fluid requires placement of a collecting bag, which can also be attached to low continuous suction. Various modifications of the use of drainage tubes within the fistula tract have been described. (See the image below.)

Enterocutaneous fistula output is controlled throu Enterocutaneous fistula output is controlled through placement of a soft-sump drain into the cutaneous opening of the fistula tract. The sump drain is connected to low suction, and the fistula opening and drain are contained within an ileostomy bag. An additional drain is placed within the bag and to continuous suction to keep the bag empty and to minimize the contact of surrounding skin with enteric contents.

The skin surrounding the fistula opening is exposed to intestinal contents, and this leads to excoriation and breakdown. Skin protection is an important part of fistula output control and is achieved through the placement of a Hollister appliance, which consists of a karaya ring with adhesive backing to encircle the fistula opening. The ring is attached to an ileostomy bag that should be emptied frequently or continuously via an attachment to continuous suction.

Stomahesive is a skin barrier material that can be applied to eroded skin to protect and allow it to heal. It contains a mixture of pectin, gelatin, and carboxymethylcellulose in wafer form. The wafer is applied to the skin, and the ostomy appliance is applied over the wafer. Skin protectants (eg, zinc oxide cream, aluminum paste, karaya gum powder, tincture of benzoin) are used to liberally coat skin that is exposed to intestinal contents.

After the fistula output is locally controlled, the applied suction is gradually reduced and finally replaced with gravity drainage. Similarly, the caliber of catheter within the fistula opening is progressively decreased. This allows the fistula tract to slowly close and heal. This process requires the careful monitoring of fistula output as changes are made, as well as frequent evaluation of the skin surrounding the fistula.

Sponge vacuum dressings can be applied to low-output fistulas to keep the surrounding skin dry. Case studies have reported some success using vacuum dressings to heal fistulas. Larger studies are required to validate these findings and to identify the appropriate use of vacuum dressings in fistula treatment.

Nutritional support

Adequate nutritional support has a significant impact on the outcome of patients with GI fistulas.[7]

Total caloric requirements for a patient with an enteric fistula are calculated on the basis of the patient’s overall clinical condition and must take into account the degree of physiologic stress. Patients with localized infections and malnutrition require 30-40 kcal/kg/day, whereas patients with uncontrolled sepsis, shock, and multiple organ failure require 40-45 kcal/kg/day. The total caloric needs are met by glucose and fats; glucose provides approximately two thirds to three fourths of the total caloric requirements, and lipids provide the remainder.

Proteins are not taken into account in calculating the total caloric requirements. This allows for efficient protein sparing and for the occurrence of an anabolic state. Proteins are administered as amino acids in parenteral formulas and protein hydrosylates in enteral formulas. To ensure that enteric protein losses are adequately replaced, 1.5-2.5 g/kg/day of protein is required.

Fluid and electrolyte balances are maintained by frequent monitoring of serum electrolyte levels and by replacing losses. Similarly, vitamins and trace elements are added to enteral formulas and parenteral formulas to prevent deficiencies.

Total parenteral nutrition (TPN) provides initial nutritional support while control of infection and maturation of the fistula tract occur. Normal intestinal motility and function usually return once abdominal sepsis is controlled and fluid and electrolyte imbalances are corrected.

Enteral feeding may be initiated orally or via a catheter placed distal to the fistula. The feeds can be started in the form of an elemental diet while fistula output is monitored. If fistula output does not significantly increase, enteral nutrition is continued and TPN gradually decreased and then discontinued.

At one time, high-output fistulas were considered a relative contraindication to initiating enteral nutrition. However, studies have demonstrated that even these fistulas can be effectively treated with enteral nutrition. The benefits of enteral nutrition include decreased gut bacterial translocation and the tropic effects on the intestinal mucosa. Enteral nutrition also helps to avoid the complications associated with TPN. Of all patients with GI fistulas who are treated with TPN, 20-25% develop complications (usually catheter-related sepsis and subclavian vein thrombosis).

Patients with optimal intake levels of calories and protein have a mortality of 12% and a fistula closure rate of 73%. Patients who receive inadequate nutritional support have a mortality close to 55% and a fistula closure rate of only 19%.

Pharmacologic support

In addition to the treatment schemata outlined below, certain enteric fistulas require variations in the principles of medical treatment and timing of surgical intervention.

The use of histamine-receptor antagonists (eg, famotidine) can decrease proximal and gastric fistula secretions.

The somatostatin analogue octreotide can significantly decrease fistula output, though earlier fistula closure has not been consistently demonstrated.[8] A subcutaneous dose (100-250 μg) of octreotide is administered every 8 hours. Various studies have reported a demonstrable decrease in fistula output of as much as 50% within 24-48 hours of initiating treatment. This can reduce high-output fistulas to a manageable level, simplifying fluid and electrolyte treatment. The routine use of somatostatin infusion and somatostatin analogues remains controversial. Although findings suggest reduced time to fistula closure, scant evidence exists of increased probability of spontaneous closure.

Patients with fistulas associated with Crohn disease benefit from anti-inflammatory agents. A short (7- to 10-day) course of cyclosporine has been shown to decrease fistula output, inflammation, and pain. The adverse effects of cyclosporine are hypertension, paresthesias, hirsutism, nephrotoxicity, and an increased incidence of sepsis. Closure of Crohn-associated fistulas has also been reported with the use of azathioprine and 6-mercaptopurine (6-MP). The adverse effects of these drugs include leukopenia, pancreatitis, paresthesias, nausea, and nephrotoxicity.

Infliximab is a chimeric monoclonal antibody to tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) that has been demonstrated to heal as many as 50% of chronic intestinal fistulas in patients with Crohn disease. Adverse effects, including headaches, abscess, upper respiratory tract infection, and fatigue, occur in more than 60% of patients. In a study of 48 patients with Crohn disease and enterocutaneous fistula, anti–TNF-α therapy resulted in complete fistula closure in 33% of the study group.[9]

The use of serial intrafistular injections of autologous bone marrow–derived mesenchymal stem cells for refractory Crohn fistulas has been described.[10]

Management of specific fistula types

Enteroenteric fistula

Patients with Crohn disease who develop enteroenteric fistulas are treated with bowel rest, long-term TPN, and pharmacologic therapy with 6-MP, cyclosporine, azathioprine, or infliximab. A large number of fistulas heal; patients with refractory disease or intolerance to medications undergo surgery.

Enteroenteric fistulas also occur in association with GI or intra-abdominal malignancies. For these patients, it is vital to exclude disseminated or unresectable disease before attempting resection for cure. Conservative treatment with bowel rest, TPN, and antibiotics is unlikely to be successful in achieving fistula cure. Patients who have an acceptable surgical risk benefit from resection and primary anastomosis of the fistular area.

Enterovesical fistula

Medical treatment consists of nutritional support and treatment of urinary tract infection with broad-spectrum antibiotics. Definitive treatment is surgical resection of the fistula, involved intestine, and bladder wall.

Nephroenteric fistula

Correction of fluid and electrolyte imbalances and administration of broad-spectrum antibiotics are the first steps in the treatment of nephrogenic fistulas. Nutritional support via TPN is instituted. If urinary obstruction is present, a temporary nephrostomy tube or a retrograde ureteral catheter is placed. Associated abscesses or fluid collections are drained via percutaneously placed catheters.

Early surgical intervention is necessary, since medical treatment alone rarely results in fistula healing. Traumatic nephroenteric fistulas are an exception to this rule; in the stable, infection-free patient, conservative treatment may resolve the fistula.

Enterovaginal fistula

Treatment entails control of sepsis, nutritional support, and local drainage via sump-drain placement. Whereas enterovaginal fistulas that occur as a result of infection may close without requiring surgical intervention, those associated with Crohn disease are unlikely to close spontaneously.

Aortoenteric fistula

Aggressive medical treatment with emergency planning for surgical intervention is necessary for aortoenteric fistulas. Treatment is initiated with intravenous administration of crystalloids, electrolyte repletion, and broad-spectrum antibiotics. Blood and blood products are administered as necessary. Central venous or Swan-Ganz catheter and intra-arterial lines are used for intravascular perioperative monitoring.

Definitive surgical treatment is undertaken on an emergency basis and involves resection of the infected aortic graft, extra-anatomic vascular bypasses, and resection and repair of the involved intestinal segment.


Surgical Therapy

Basic principles of surgical treatment

The surgical procedure for intestinal fistula treatment depends on the structures involved. The basic surgical principles for treatment of all intestinal fistulas include the following:

  • The procedure invovles resection of the intestinal segment, fistula tract, and the adjacent part of the involved structure
  • In the absence of extensive infection or inflammation, primary anastomosis of the divided intestinal segments is done to reestablish GI continuity and repair of the involved structure to maintain function
  • In the presence of extensive infection or inflammation, the divided intestinal segments are exteriorized and the surgical procedure is modulated to allow replacement or maximal preservation of function
  • A staged procedure is performed after the infection and inflammation subsides to re-establish GI continuity and reconstruction of the affected structure

Choice of procedure for specific fistula types

Enterocutaneous fistula

The surgical procedure is individualized on the basis of preoperative radiologic and intraoperative findings.

Resection of the involved intestinal segment with primary end-to-end anastomosis is the procedure of choice and allows successful healing in most patients.

Exteriorization of the proximal and distal ends of the intestine is performed in the presence of extensive intra-abdominal sepsis, for which primary anastomosis is not appropriate. An everted Brooke ostomy is created from the proximal end to allow for successful postoperative fitting of an appliance.

A bypass procedure (see the image below) is appropriate when dense adhesions are encountered within the pelvis that preclude extensive lysis of adhesions. The goal is to defunctionalize the intestinal segment containing the fistula. Ideally, intestinal continuity is also restored; the intestinal segment containing the fistula tract is removed later.

Bypass of fistulous bowel loops that are densely a Bypass of fistulous bowel loops that are densely adherent within the pelvic cavity by creation of an anastomosis between the divided afferent limb and the transverse colon.

It is often hard to mobilize the distal intestinal segment adequately. In these instances, the proximal segment is mobilized and anastomosed to the transverse colon (see the image below), while the distal segment is closed and left in place or exteriorized as a mucous fistula. If intestinal continuity cannot be restored, the ends are exteriorized, and a staged procedure is performed with an end-to-end anastomosis. Ideally—though this is not always possible—the staged procedure is completed when the fistula segment is removed later.

Direct suture closure of the fistula is rarely successful and is used only as a last resort in patients with dense abdominal adhesions that preclude enteroclysis or in debilitated patients who cannot tolerate prolonged anesthesia.

GI fistulas associated with large abdominal defects are challenging surgical problems and are associated with a high mortality. Multiple staged procedures are necessary, with the aim of reconstructing the abdominal wall while controlling the fistula. The fistula may be controlled with a Malecot or soft-sump catheter intubation, while the adjacent abdominal wall defect is covered with split-thickness skin grafts or musculocutaneous flaps.

Enteroenteric fistula

The ideal procedure for surgical treatment of enteroenteric fistulas is en-bloc resection of the involved intestinal segment in continuity with the fistula tract. In the absence of associated infection or significant inflammation, a primary anastomosis of healthy bowel ends can be attempted. In the presence of associated inflammation or infection, a proximal diversion procedure with wide drainage of the abscess cavity is performed. This is followed in 4-6 weeks with a delayed resection of the involved intestine and fistula.

All attempts are made to conserve bowel length in both primary and staged procedures. Resection should be limited to the area of intestine involved in fistula formation. Extensive resection is not advantageous and only increases the risks of subsequent short-bowel syndrome and malabsorption. This is particularly true in patients with Crohn disease who may require additional intestinal resections.

Enterovesical fistula

Patients with enterovesical fistulas undergo surgical resection of the diseased intestine and the involved area of bladder wall. A primary anastomosis of the bowel is performed, and the bladder wall is closed in layers. The areas of repair are separated with interposition of omental tissue, if possible.

The presence of inflammation makes healing of an anastomosis or repair unlikely. The safer procedure in these instances is transection of the intestinal segment proximal and distal to the fistula, leaving the fistula tract in place. Both ends of the intestine are exteriorized. This allows the urinary tract to remain free of contamination from intestinal contents. The patient is treated with appropriate antibiotics. Once infection and inflammation resolve, a delayed surgical procedure can be performed to resect the fistula tract and intestinal segment with primary repair of the bladder wall.

Nephroenteric fistula

Medical treatment alone is rarely successful in resolving nephroenteric fistulas. The surgical procedure of choice is either total or partial nephrectomy, with en-bloc resection of the fistula tract and the involved intestinal segment. The ends of the intestines are anastomosed primarily.

Partial nephrectomy is appropriate in patients whose renal function is not severely impaired (as is mostly observed in nephroenteric fistulas of traumatic origin). The presence of a contralateral functioning kidney is verified prior to a total nephrectomy.

In the presence of severe inflammation or infection, the intestine is not anastomosed primarily. The segments are exteriorized to skin level, and a delayed anastomosis is performed after inflammation and infection have subsided.

Enterovaginal fistula

Surgery is reserved for patients who do not respond to conservative treatment with antibiotics and drainage of associated abscesses. An en-bloc resection of the involved intestinal segment with fistula and affected vaginal wall is performed. The intestinal ends are anastomosed primarily; the vaginal defect may be closed primarily.

Resection of a cuff of vaginal tissue along with the fistula and involved intestine is the preferred surgical approach. A primary intestinal anastomosis should be performed if the surrounding inflammation permits. The vaginal defect may be left open to allow postoperative external drainage of the pelvis.

Enterouterine, enterocervical, and enterofallopian fistulas

Appropriate treatment of the underlying disease with a total hysterectomy is usually indicated. The resected intestinal ends are anastomosed primarily.

Aortoenteric fistula

Emergency surgical intervention is required for aortoenteric fistula. The aortic prosthetic graft is removed, and an extra-anatomic bypass procedure is performed. The intestinal defect is debrided and closed primarily. The presence of extensive inflammatory or devitalized tissue may necessitate intestinal resection and an end-to-end anastomosis.

Surgeons have reported successful resection of the aortoenteric fistula followed with in-situ replacement of the infected prosthesis with a new prosthetic graft or cryopreserved aortic homograft. This procedure is associated with the risk of recurrent fatal aortoenteric fistula.

Procedural details

Preoperative concerns

The duration of conservative treatment is individualized. If the patient attains good nutritional status, remains free of sepsis, and has fistula output that progressively decreases, conservative treatment may be continued. The spontaneous closure rate of intestinal fistulas is reported as 30-80%. More than 90% of all fistulas close spontaneously within 4-6 weeks; fewer than 10% close after 2 months, and none spontaneously close after 3 months. Failure of an enterocutaneous fistula to spontaneously close is associated with a number of factors. (See the image below.)

Predictive factors for spontaneous closure and mor Predictive factors for spontaneous closure and mortality associated with fistulas.

The acronym FRIENDS is commonly used to predict the likelihood of fistula closure. FRIENDS stands for the presence of Foreign body, Radiated bowel, Inflammation (commonly due to Crohn disease), Infection, Epithelialization of the fistula tract, Neoplasm, Distal intestinal obstruction, and pharmacologically administered Steroids. These indicate a low likelihood of fistula closure. Identification and possible correction of some or all of these factors increase the chances of fistula closure.

Delaying surgery permits peritoneal reaction and inflammation to subside, making a definitive surgical procedure easier and safer. Prior to surgical intervention for fistulas, control of infection and optimization of nutritional status are important. Surgical intervention is most commonly undertaken for persistent fistula drainage despite adequate conservative treatment.

The need for emergency or urgent surgical intervention for intestinal fistulas is uncommon. An undrained intraperitoneal abscess not amenable to drainage guided by computed tomography (CT) or ultrasonography is most likely to necessitate emergency intervention. Other indications include the presence of complete distal intestinal obstruction, uncontrolled fistula bleeding, the presence of mesh or other foreign bodies, and an inability to control the fistula without surgical drainage.

Surgical planning for fistula repair is individualized according to the patient’s overall medical status, radiologic findings, and intraoperative findings. Prolonged surgery may be anticipated with significant fluid shifts. Appropriate preoperative planning includes the following:

  • Ensure that the patient is euvolemic before the procedure
  • Provide blood transfusions as required
  • Administer appropriate antibiotics
  • Place a central venous catheter to determine intravascular volume status and thereby to direct perioperative management
  • Place a Foley catheter to monitor urine output

Intraoperative concerns

The surgical approach to the peritoneal cavity is through an incision that is located away from the areas of potential infection, inflammation, and adhesions. If a previous midline incision is present, the abdomen can be entered in the midline above or below the incision. This minimizes the chances of encountering adhesions to the abdominal wall and inadvertent enterotomies. A transverse incision located away from previous incisions is also a good option and allows peritoneal entry in an area free of adhesions.

Adhesions are lysed by starting from the area with the least dense adhesions and progressively approaching the more dense areas of adhesions and inflammation. Extensive lysis of adhesions is performed to free up the bowel from the ligament of Treitz to the rectum. This allows a complete inspection to exclude the presence of inter-loop abscesses and areas of obstruction; which is especially important in patients with complex fistulas as well as clinical and radiologic signs of obstruction.

Extensive adhesiolysis may not be safe or feasible in the presence of dense adhesions. In these instances, dissection is limited to the areas that correlate to the areas of fistula, abscesses, or obstruction as identified on preoperative radiologic examinations.

Certain maneuvers are helpful in facilitating lysis of adhesions. Sterile water-soaked or saline-soaked laparotomy pads are applied to the areas of adhesions. This creates local edema that allows easier dissection. Lysis is best performed with careful sharp dissection using scalpel or Metzenbaum scissors. Blunt finger dissection had been associated with a higher incidence of enterotomies. The underlying bowel can be protected during the dissection by placing a hand behind the adhesions.

Resection with primary anastomosis of the section or sections of bowel containing the fistula is the optimal procedure. The fistula tract along with the adjacent wall of the structure involved is resected if possible.

The intestinal anastomosis is created using healthy bowel ends and a two-layer closure. Exteriorization of the bowel ends to create controlled fistulas is an option if unresectable distal obstruction is present.

The defect in the structure involved is repaired primarily, if possible. An enterovesical fistula after resection leaves a bladder wall defect that is usually easily repaired in two layers. A vaginal defect following enterovaginal fistula resection may be left open to allow drainage and secondary healing or may be repaired primarily. After resection, aortoenteric fistulas mandate reestablishment of blood flow via the creation of extra-anatomic bypasses away from the area of infection.

Areas of complex fistulas involving multiple bowel segments where isolation is not feasible may benefit from a bypass procedure, which can allow fistula healing. Roux-en-Y bypass of the diseased area may be performed. A simple bypass of the fistula-containing segment via anastomosis of afferent and efferent limbs in continuity is ineffective (see the image below).

Bypass of a densely adherent fistula by anastomosi Bypass of a densely adherent fistula by anastomosis of afferent and efferent limbs of intestine in continuity. This is an ineffective method of bypass, since the enteric contents continue to flow into the fistula tract.

A densely adherent or unresectable fistula is bypassed by completely dividing the afferent and efferent limbs and reanastomosing the divided ends to reestablish intestinal continuity. Large defects of the bowel wall can be repaired with a serosal patch, typically using the proximal jejunum.

After completing the anastomosis, the remainder of the bowel is reexamined to ensure that no inadvertent enterotomies or serosal tears are present. Enterotomies are repaired by using a two-layer closure, ensuring that no narrowing of the bowel lumen occurs. Serosal tears may be repaired with Lembert sutures.

Prior to abdominal closure, available omentum is placed between the bowel and the abdominal wall or the areas of resected and repaired adjacent structures involved in the fistula formation.

Patients with large open abdominal walls or defects may be candidates for an abdominal closure using absorbable mesh. In a previously infected field, mesh carries the risk of recurrent infections and fistulas. Fascial closure through separating the components of the rectus abdominis muscle-fascial complex can be used to achieve abdominal closure.

Postoperative care

Continued nutritional support is essential in the postoperative course. A feeding jejunostomy or gastrostomy tube may be placed if prolonged nutritional support is required.


Surgical procedures for enteric fistulas carry significant risks. Operative complications that may be anticipated and prevented with meticulous technique are included below.

Inadvertent enterotomies

Enterotomies commonly occur during lysis of dense adhesions, especially of bowel loops located within the pelvic cavity. The reported rate of inadvertent enterotomies during primary laparoscopic procedures is 1-4%, compared with less than 1% for procedures approached via primary laparotomy. For procedures that involve lysis of adhesions, laparoscopy is associated with a 20-50% rate of inadvertent enterotomy compared with a rate of 13-19% during repeat laparotomy for lysis of adhesions.

Careful sharp dissection under direct vision minimizes the occurrence of enterotomies. If recognized, they are immediately repaired with closure using a two-layer technique and without limiting the luminal diameter. Heineke-Mikulicz or Finney intestinal plasty procedures may be performed. If short-bowel syndrome is not a concern, segmental resection and anastomosis may be performed. After completion of the surgical procedure, the entire bowel length is examined for missed enterotomies.

Excessive blood loss

Dense and extensive adhesiolysis may result in significant blood loss in patients who, preoperatively, may be anemic and nutritionally depleted. All patients who undergo surgical intervention for enteric fistulas should have their blood typed and crossmatched prior to surgery. Blood and blood products are administered judiciously on the basis of operative losses and the patient's clinical condition.


Postoperative partial anastomotic breakdown or intraperitoneal contamination may lead to abscess formation. Manipulation of infected tissue during operative procedures may lead to bacteremia and sepsis.

Short-bowel syndrome

Short-bowel syndrome is likely to occur in patients who undergo resection of excessive lengths of small bowel. This may occur after a single surgical procedure or result from repeated resections for treatment of chronic intestinal pathology (eg, Crohn enteritis, complications from Crohn enteritis). Conserving a minimum of 45-60 in. of healthy small bowel in the presence of a patent ileocecal valve precludes the development of short-bowel syndrome.

Recurrence of fistulas

After surgical repair of enterocutaneous fistulas, the risk of fistula recurrence is reported as 18-33%. The main predictive factor of recurrence is the surgical technique used: Wedge resection or oversewing of an enterocutaneous fistula carries a recurrence rate of 32.7%, compared with 18.4% in patients who underwent resection or anastomotic revision.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Neelu Pal, MD General Surgeon

Neelu Pal, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association, Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

David L Morris, MD, PhD, FRACS Professor, Department of Surgery, St George Hospital, University of New South Wales, Australia

David L Morris, MD, PhD, FRACS is a member of the following medical societies: British Society of Gastroenterology

Disclosure: Received none from RFA Medical for director; Received none from MRC Biotec for director.

Chief Editor

John Geibel, MD, DSc, MSc, MA Vice Chair and Professor, Department of Surgery, Section of Gastrointestinal Medicine, and Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology, Yale University School of Medicine; Director, Surgical Research, Department of Surgery, Yale-New Haven Hospital; American Gastroenterological Association Fellow

John Geibel, MD, DSc, MSc, MA is a member of the following medical societies: American Gastroenterological Association, American Physiological Society, American Society of Nephrology, Association for Academic Surgery, International Society of Nephrology, New York Academy of Sciences, Society for Surgery of the Alimentary Tract

Disclosure: Received royalty from AMGEN for consulting; Received ownership interest from Ardelyx for consulting.

Additional Contributors

Brian J Daley, MD, MBA, FACS, FCCP, CNSC Professor and Program Director, Department of Surgery, Chief, Division of Trauma and Critical Care, University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Medicine

Brian J Daley, MD, MBA, FACS, FCCP, CNSC is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma, Southern Surgical Association, American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association, Association for Academic Surgery, Association for Surgical Education, Shock Society, Society of Critical Care Medicine, Southeastern Surgical Congress, Tennessee Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Classification of fistulas.
Management algorithm for intestinal fistulas.
Predictive factors for spontaneous closure and mortality associated with fistulas.
Postoperative enterocutaneous fistula. Fistula forms as a result of partial or complete intestinal anastomotic disruption and associated resultant abscess.
Congenital patent omphalomesenteric duct resulting in an enterocutaneous fistula.
Enterovesical fistula.
Nephroenteric fistula.
Enterovaginal fistula.
Aortoenteric fistula demonstrating a direct connection between the intestinal lumen (typically the duodenum) and the prosthetic graft.
Aortoenteric fistula that forms through erosion of a periprosthetic graft infection into the intestinal lumen.
Enterocutaneous fistula output is controlled through placement of a soft-sump drain into the cutaneous opening of the fistula tract. The sump drain is connected to low suction, and the fistula opening and drain are contained within an ileostomy bag. An additional drain is placed within the bag and to continuous suction to keep the bag empty and to minimize the contact of surrounding skin with enteric contents.
Bypass of fistulous bowel loops that are densely adherent within the pelvic cavity by creation of an anastomosis between the divided afferent limb and the transverse colon.
Bypass of a densely adherent fistula by anastomosis of afferent and efferent limbs of intestine in continuity. This is an ineffective method of bypass, since the enteric contents continue to flow into the fistula tract.
A densely adherent or unresectable fistula is bypassed by dividing both afferent and efferent intestinal loops and reanastomosing the divided ends to restore intestinal continuity. The fistula tract is essentially isolated from the enteric stream. If a longer loop of bowel is bypassed, the divided ends can be exteriorized.
Enterocutaneous fistula.
Enterocutaneous fistula.
Resected enterocutaneous fistula, embedded in surrounding inflammatory tissue and skin.
Stapled closure of intestinal lumen to restore intestinal continuity following resection of enterocutaneous fistula.
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